The Canterbury Tales: Prologue

[While conventional travel has been complicated or even constrained by worldwide pandemic, readers may still find solace in the vicarious travel and pilgrimage of literature. In the text below, Geoffrey Chaucer guides readers into Fourteenth Century England, on the way to Canterbury. The beginning and end of the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is excerpted below. For readers who hope to journey further, Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website provides The Canterbury Tales in their entirety, in both Middle English and (intralinear) modern English versions. And for yet another April poem, with an unforgettable first line, radically contrasting with that of The Canterbury Tales, see The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot. -Encomia]

by Geoffrey Chaucer

When April with its showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such water
Whose virtue gives life to the flower;
When Zephyrus also with his sweet breath
Has inspired in every wood and field
The tender new shoots, and the young sun
Has run half his course in the sign of Ram,
And small birds make melody,
That sleep all the night with open eyes
(So Nature stirs them in their hearts):
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages
And pilgrims long to seek strange shores,
To far-off hallows known in various lands;
And especially, from every shire’s end
Of England, to Canterbury they come,
The holy, blissful martyr to seek
Who helped them when they were sick.

It befell that in that season on a certain day
As I lay in Southwark at the Tabard Inn,
Ready to make my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, with full devout heart,
At night there came into that hostelry
A company of nine-and-twenty people,
Of various folk, fallen together by chance
In fellowship, and they were all pilgrims,
Who toward Canterbury would ride.
The chambers and stables were broad
And we were made well at ease.
And soon, when the sun had set,
I had spoken with every one of them,
So that I was made one of their fellowship,
And we made plans to rise early,
To take our way, as I shall tell.

. . . .

Now have I told you briefly, in a few words,
The estate, the attire, the number, and the reason
Why this company had assembled
In Southwark, at the fine hostelry
That is called the Tabard, close by the Bell.
But now it is time to tell you
How we fared that same night,
When we had alighted in that hostelry;
And after I will tell of our trip,
And all the rest of our pilgrimage.
But first I pray you, of your courtesy,
That you not interpret it as my vulgarity,
If I speak plainly in this matter,
To tell you their words and their behavior,
Even though I speak their precise words;
For you know as well as I,
That whoever shall tell a story after a man,
Must rehearse, as near as ever he can,
Every word, if it be in his charge,
However rudely and broadly he spoke.
Or else he tells his tale untrue,
Or makes pretense, or finds words new.
He may not spare, even his brother;
He must say one word as well as another.
Christ himself spoke very broadly in Holy Writ,
And well you know there is no evil in it.
Also Plato says, as whoever reads him knows,
The words must be cousin to the deed.
I also ask you to forgive me
If I have not placed folk in their degree,
In this tale, as they should stand;
My wit is short, as you may well understand.

Great cheer our Host made for every one of us,
And to the supper he set us at once,
And served us with the best of food.
The wine was strong, and well we liked to drink.
Our Host was indeed a seemly man
To have been a master of ceremonies in a hall;
A large man he was, with prominent eyes,
There is not a fairer burgher in all of Cheapside:
Bold of speech, and wise, and well taught,
And of manhood he lacked nothing.
In addition, he was a merry man,
And after supper he began to play,
And spoke of mirth, among other things–
When we had paid our bills–
And said thus: “Now, lords, truly,
You are heartily welcome here,
For on my word, I shall not lie,
I have not seen this year so merry a company
All at once in this inn as now.
Happily I would give you some mirth, if I knew how.
And of a mirth, I have just now thought,
To give you entertainment, and it shall cost nothing.

“You are going to Canterbury–God speed you,
The blissful martyr give you your reward.
And well I know that as you go on your way
You plan to tell tales and enjoy yourselves,
For truly, there is no comfort or mirth
In riding along the way speechless as a stone;
And therefore I will make sport,
As I said before, and give you some comfort.
And if you all agree, by one assent,
To follow my judgment
And to endeavor as I say,
Tomorrow when you ride on the way,
By the soul of my father who is dead,
Unless you are made merry, I will give you my own head.
Hold up your hands, without more talk.”

Our counsel was not long to seek out;
We thought it was not worth deliberating,
And granted his request without more advice,
And bade him say his verdict, whatever he pleased.

“Lords,” he said, “now listen well;
But don’t take it, I pray you, in disdain;
This is the point, to speak short and plain,
That each of you, to shorten our way
On this trip, shall tell two tales–
That is, to Canterbury I mean–
And homeward he shall tell two more
Of adventures from the past;
And whichever of you speaks best of all,
That is to say, that tells in this case
Tales of most instruction and delight,
Shall have a supper at our expense,
Here in this place, sitting by this post,
When we come again from Canterbury.
And to make you the merrier,
I will ride with you myself,
At my own expense, and be your guide.
And whoever shall refuse my judgment
Shall pay all we spend on the way.
And if you promise that it shall be so,
Tell me at once, without more words,
And I will ready myself early for the purpose.”

This was granted, and we swore our oaths
With glad hearts, and asked him also
That he would agree to do as he said–
That he would be our governor
And of our tales judge and scorer,
And set supper at a certain price;
And we would be ruled at his decision,
In high and low; and thus, by one assent,
We agreed to his judgment.
And thereupon the wine was fetched at once;
We drank, and went to rest, each one of us,
Without tarrying any longer.

The next day, when the day began to spring,
Our Host arose, and like a cock aroused us,
And gathered us together in a flock,
And we rode forth, at little more than a walk,
Until the watering place of Saint Thomas;
And there our Host checked his horse,
And said: “Lords, listen, if you will.
You know your agreement, and I remind you of it.
If your evening song and morning song agree,
Let’s see now who shall tell the first tale.
As sure as I must drink wine or ale,
Whoever is rebellious to my judgment
Shall pay for all that is spent on the way.
Now draw lots, before we go further;
He who gets the shortest shall begin.
Sir Knight,” said he, “my master and my lord,
Now draw your lot, for that is my decision.
Come near,” said he, “my lady Prioress;
And you, sir Clerk, leave off your bashfulness,
Don’t deliberate; lay a hand to, everyone.”

At once everyone began to draw;
And to tell you briefly, as it happened,
Whether by luck, or fate, or chance,
The truth is this, the lot fell to the Knight,
For which everyone was quite glad;
And tell his tale he must, as was agreed,
By treaty and by compact,
As you have heard; what need say more?
And when this good man saw that it was so,
As he was wise and obedient
To keep his promise by his free assent,
He said: “Since I shall begin the game,
Then welcome be the lot, in God’s name!
Now let us ride, and listen to what I say.”

And with that word we rode forth on our way.
And he began with merry cheer
His tale at once, and said as follows.

The image above shows a portion of the Canterbury Tales Mural, by Ezra Winter, in the Library of Congress North Reading Room in the John Adams building. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, public domain. The text of the Prologue above is very slightly modernized, as edited by Jonathan English.

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